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The Humanities Are More Economical

What Teaching Political Philosophy and Efficiency Have to Do with Each Other.

By Danielle Allen | HUMANITIES, March/April 2016 | Volume 37, Number 1

In a display speech to demonstrate his skills, the ancient rhetorician Gorgias defended the Greek beauty Helen from charges that she was guilty of running off with Paris to Troy. He offered several possible lines of defense. Perhaps she’d been seduced by Eros, the god of love. If so, Helen should be judged innocent because we are not responsible for what the gods make us do. Perhaps Paris had taken her by force. Perhaps she had been moved to go by persuasion, the power of logos or speech. Of logos, Gorgias wrote that “speech is a great ruling power (dynastēs), which achieves the most divine works by means of the smallest and least visible body.” Gorgias thus astutely laid bare a principle of economy at the heart of language. This principle of economy, I think, is the foundation of work in the humanities. From it flows both the power of the humanities and also, paradoxically, their institutional woes.

Gorgias’s poetic description of language as a great ruler in the smallest and least visible body establishes a ratio between the power of speech—as great as that of a tyrant—and the scale of the vehicle that delivers it (close to zero). Logos is not merely powerful but efficient.

Fundamentally, the humanities are about language and languages. This is true across the disciplines of literature, history, and culture, but also of art history and the visual arts, music history, and the performing arts. Their languages may be visual, aural, and even kinesthetic, but they are still languages, doing expressive and communicative work. If Gorgias is right about language and its principle of economy, then the same principle should apply to the humanities. 

What precisely is the source of language’s economical power and of the efficiency of the humanities?

Any human individual is a pretty complex being and so the pathways along which our development unfolds are, unsurprisingly, also complex. We often try to avoid thinking about those developmental pathways comprehensively, but now and then a sustained effort at analytical precision is worth it. If anything, I think such a moment is overdue.

So consider the following schema, developed by my Humanities and Liberal Arts research team (HULA), for thinking about the potential pathways of human development, understood as entailing the development of the whole person. There’s a lot of detail here, but it’s also, ultimately, a pretty rudimentary picture.

In our framework, the process of human development begins with inputs that we take in through our senses or conjure up through our memory. In the humanities, those inputs may be verbal, visual, aural, kinesthetic, or behavioral. Everything, in other words, other than the quantitative (although number, too, is a form of language). Having taken in some sort of stimuli, we process those stimuli with any or all of the following processing capacities: cognitive capacities, whether analytical or imaginative; metacognitive capacities (this is the capacity to think about how we think); affective or emotional capacities; intersubjective capacities (these are the ones that hone our relational or interpersonal skills); or the expressive component of our kinesthetic capacities (perhaps I go for a run to help me straighten out my thinking on a given subject and the rhythm of the running helps me bring order to my thoughts).

This processing work generates results. Some are short-term, namely, the development of skills or second-order capacities. Examples would include outcomes from literacy to creativity to resilience; a full list can be found in the chart below. Some results are long term, shaping the longer developmental arc of a life. We could divide those, roughly, among the existential, the vocational, and the civic. Take the existential as identifying the long-term development of our experience as an individual, our sense of identity and subjectivity, and our experience of intimate relationships. Take the vocational as identifying the long-term development of our competence to fend for ourselves economically. And take the civic as identifying the arc of our development as people who participate in organizational and political communities—local, national, or global.

Here’s a chart of that schema.

Chart one

Now a learning pathway is a process in which teachers and students focus on a subset of inputs, some particular modes of processing those inputs, and some short-term and long-term goals for that processing work. For instance, a teacher in a political philosophy class might engage students in a lot of close reading (a verbal input). She might emphasize the analytical work done by the students in the class by really asking them to focus on logical argumentation (a choice to emphasize the analytical aspect of cognition for the processing). She might do this, seeking to cultivate “understanding” in the students of key political concepts and how they relate to living political practice, her short-term goal. She expects that equipping them with this sort of understanding will make them better civic agents. The long-term result she seeks is, in the first instance, civic, even if there is also an existential flavor to what she hopes to give her students. She believes, for instance, that efficacy as a civic actor strengthens their sense of individual identity. We could map the learning pathway she deploys thus:

Chart two

On this schema, 1,080 distinct learning pathways are possible, if, that is, instructors focus on only one input, only one processing capacity, only one short-term result, and only one long-term result. For a partial representation of the explosion of possibilities, consider this:

Chart three

Of course, my mathematization here is, to some extent, an elaborate joke. As we all know, no instructor focuses his efforts in such a thoroughly streamlined fashion, and this is because students have different needs. One student in that political philosophy class may need a lot of work on the quality of his logical argumentation. Another, however, may be quite good at that but not very good at the sorts of intersubjective skills that facilitate discussions with other students. The good instructor will find himself switching learning pathways accordingly, as students’ needs become apparent to him. The number of combinatorial pathways, in other words, is vast, and it’s not even clear, jokes aside, that it is worth enumerating their total number. Here is where the efficiency of the humanities comes in. When good teachers are at work, teaching in the humanities can develop students in all of the ways sketched above, and it can also do many of these things at the same time! This raises the possibility that the humanities have been so durable, across millennia, precisely because they are a remarkably economical or efficient tool for human development fully understood.

Now we come to the topic of the institutional woes of the humanities, by which I mean the common lament that the humanities can’t explain what they do or its value nor provide ways of measuring themselves. Despite the fact that humanistic and scientific pursuits ought, in their foundations, to be similar and complementary activities, the STEM fields are taken to stand in stark contrast to the humanities with regard to the issue of assessment. If we humanists are the naughty child, they are the cherubic offspring.

This divergent characterization of these two parts of the academy stems, I believe, from a willingness of those in the STEM fields to limit their focus. The STEM fields, too, can pursue the multiplicity of learning pathways indicated above and available to anyone interested in human development. A chart like the learning pathways schema could work for them, also, with the substitution of quantitative and mathematical for verbal inputs or, perhaps better, with the addition of the mathematical to the list of possible inputs. Yet the disciplines captured by the STEM label have chosen to concentrate their energies, in the main, around a single pathway: one which focuses on quantitative or mathematical inputs, the analytical components of cognition, the development of critical thinking skills, and vocational goals for students. By virtue of coordinating around one dominant learning pathway, the practitioners of STEM fields have made their practice more amenable to measurement.

Humanists, in contrast, have rightly held on to the principle of economy that has historically, and organically, characterized their practice, the idea that it is better to do many things simultaneously than one thing insistently. For this reason, measurement becomes a significant challenge. There are too many different things that we might be measuring. To see what a thicket it becomes when one tries to nail down measurability for the many things going on in a humanistic classroom, one need only look at the very well-intentioned rubrics developed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ (AAC&U’s) VALUE Rubric Development Project.

Over a two-year period, the AAC&U led the development of sixteen rubrics whose purpose is to assess learning outcomes like “inquiry and analysis,” “critical thinking,” “civic engagement—local and global,” “ethical reasoning,” “global learning,” and so on. Each rubric is dense; most overlap with others. When one tries to pry apart, for formal assessment, all the cognitive, affective, and intersubjective skills and capacities that are developed simultaneously by serious engagement with language and the humanities, the result is baroque.

The principle of economy, which governs pedagogic practice in the humanities, explains why this is so. The point of the humanities, its value, lies in the very fact of their economical nature. Currently, dominant approaches to assessment are accidentally but necessarily bent on destroying that efficiency.

To identify this principle of economy as a defining feature of the humanities, and to understand its importance, is not, however, a starting point for a refusal to engage in conversations about assessment and evaluation in the humanities. To the contrary, that is a conversation I think we very much need to have. But we need to begin it from recognition of how the principle of economy—of doing many things simultaneously—structures pedagogic practice in the humanities.

About the Author

Professor of Government and Education at Harvard, Danielle Allen is also Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board.